Friday, March 27, 2015

2011 recruiting class in review

This is a regular yearly feature these days that I don't want to let slip, so, bonus Thursday post.  The 2011 recruiting class is either gone or going into their fifth-year-senior season, so for the most part we know how things have shaken out.  Usually one or two players blossom in the upcoming season enough that they finish their career in a better category, but hopefully we're now doing this late enough that we're done with attrition from this class, which wasn't the case last year when Jake McGee made it into the "stars" category only to transfer.

2011 was Mike London's first real recruiting class, and if you think back to Signing Day 2011 you might even remember what it was like to feel optimism about the football program.  London was beating Virginia Tech for recruits, which hadn't happened in lo these many years.  It was a big class, a darn good one at the time, and it was supposed to be the foundation of the revival.

The stars next to the player are the number that Rivals gave them, for consistency's sake with previous editions.

DECOMMITMENTS (3)

S Matt Bailey *** (Edna Karr - LA)

Short version: Decent semi-regular at Tulane

Bailey was actually a Groh commitment, one of the last vestiges of the era.  Groh wanted very large defensive players and a lot of his recruits got shifted closer to the line by London.  In Bailey's case, London likely thought Bailey much too big to play safety, and the decommitment was at least mutual if not largely engineered by London.  Bailey wound up at his hometown school, Tulane, and played as a true freshman - but at linebacker.  His peak year was 2012, when he started the majority of games; he started a handful of games each of the following seasons, too, but never really built on his sophomore season.

S Jordan Lomax *** (DeMatha - MD)

Short version: Exploded in 2014 for Iowa

Lomax decommitted from UVA very late in the cycle; barely a week before Signing Day, in fact.  Rumors of it were swirling beforehand, and it didn't sound like the cleanest of divorces.  When asked about it, Lomax refused to give any details, or even any broad statements.

For three years there wasn't much career to talk about.  Lomax saw spot duty in 2011 and 2013, sandwiched around a shoulder injury that forced him out of action in 2012.  He did start a game in 2013, but injuries continued to hold him back.  Then, this past fall, he got into the starting lineup and never looked back.  As Iowa's starting free safety he had 92 tackles, six PBUs, and a pick, and made honorable mention all-B1G.  Additionally he's a two-year academic all-conference performer too.  UVA hasn't actually been lacking for decent safeties, so losing him didn't hurt UVA much, but it's not often one of our decommitments does so well.

TE Darius Redman ** (H.D. Woodson - DC)

Short version: TE who moved to lineman at VT

This was another at least quasi-mutual decommitment; London did recruit Redman but it wasn't quite the fit that it felt like in the beginning, and truth is Redman wasn't the last instance of London having trouble getting DC public school players through admissions.

Redman has been a lightly-used player most of the time in Blacksburg.  As a redshirt sophomore in 2013 he started two games and saw between 10-15 plays a game on offense, but his role diminished big-time last year and he hardly played.  This spring - just a few days ago, in fact - Redman moved to the offensive line to shore up Tech's depth issues.

DIDN'T MAKE IT THIS FAR (12)

DE Diamonte Bailey ** (Hermitage - VA)

Short version: Left team

One minute he was there, and then he wasn't.  Bailey didn't transfer, and his departure wasn't publicized.  He participated in spring practice 2013; by the summer, he was off the roster with hardly a peep.  Bailey never played in a game for UVA.  

DE Thompson Brown *** (St. Christopher's - VA)

Short version: Switched to lacrosse

Brown had a few plays here and there as a true freshman, but unlike most players in this section, he did sear one big moment into the memory of UVA fans.  With UVA clinging to a lead against Miami after giving most of it away, the Canes were down to one last play with a legitimate shot at the end zone.  Part of a three-man rush, Brown blew through the line early and forced Canes QB Stephen Morris to take off running before any of the routes could develop.  Morris scrambled and was brought down to end the game, and Brown looked like he might be a future force on defense.

It didn't last long; Brown decided after one season to jump to Dom Starsia's outfit instead, where he's a reserve defender who missed 2014 (his junior year) with injury and has gotten in a couple blowout games when healthy.

OT Tim Cwalina *** (Mt. Lebanon - PA)

Short version: Medical scholarship

Getting an offensive lineman that Wisconsin offered is a pretty good deal.  But Cwalina never played a game for UVA; he redshirted as a freshman as most linemen do, but sat out the following spring with mono and then was sidelined for good when it was discovered he had a heart condition.  Just before the 2012 season began, Cwalina was placed on medical scholarship, ending his football career.

WR Adrian Gamble *** (Independence - NC)

Short version: Transferred to Tennessee

Talk about your lengthy sagas.  Gamble committed to UVA in July of 2009 - not only giving his commitment to Al Groh but doing it before his junior season.  Then, after sticking with it through the coaching change and two of his high school seasons, he had to wait yet another season to suit up, forced to take a postgrad year at FUMA.  (Which seems odd; he did have two years where he knew he was going to UVA, you'd think that'd be enough time to get his transcripts in order.)

At any rate, he finally got on the field in 2012 and 2013, but despite his blazing speed, wasn't able to push very far on the depth chart.  He only played in five games in 2013, and caught just three passes in his UVA career, which might have helped his decision to transfer.  He decided, before the 2014 season, to walk on at Tennessee, meaning he was actually a Hoo for less time than he was anticipating being a Hoo.  Having redshirted in 2014, he'll have two more seasons to try and make his mark in Knoxville.

ATH Kevin Green ** (Petersburg - VA)

Short version: Never even enrolled

Not really a decommitment, because he did sign, Green never landed in Charlottesville.  Required to prep a year to get eligible, I don't recall that he even did that.  Thanks to his disappearing act and having a common name, Green is nigh-unGooglable; most results for "kevin green virginia" turn up a convincted murderer who was executed in 2008.

OT Kelby Johnson *** (DeMatha - MD)

Short version: Academic issues sent him to juco; landed at Louisville

Johnson was always going to be a boom-or-bust prospect.  Recruited out of then-pipeline DeMatha, Johnson had a rocky two years at UVA.  He played as a true freshman and then sat out 2012, and watched his grades spiral into irrecoverable oblivion.  He was forced to fix his grades in junior college, ending up at a place called ASA College in Brooklyn, NY.  Bobby Petrino was tipped off to his existence, and after a season spent at juco in 2013, he went to Louisville.

Once there, he was considered a candidate to compete for a starting tackle role, instead, he was basically a special-teamer.  He'll have one more year to try and rescuscitate his career.

DT Marco Jones *** (Boys' Latin - MD)

Short version: Never played

Another D-lineman who never set foot on the field for UVA.  A combination of two things sank his career: injuries, for one, as he missed most of his redshirt freshman season in 2012; also, he was a tweener in a big way.  Never really quick enough for DE and couldn't get on the field as a DT.  Shame, because Jones had a lot of promise coming out of high school.  Jones was still in the plans as late as July 2014, but was no longer on the roster by the fall.

LB Darius Lee ** (St. Stephens & St. Agnes - VA)

Short version: Special teamer who recently left

If we'd done this a week ago, Lee would be in the "never panned out" section, but the roster was updated for the spring recently and Lee wasn't on it.  That's about the extent of the fanfare his departure got.  Recruited as a safety, he was moved to outside linebacker, but it didn't get him on the field on defense.

Lee did, however, play very regularly on special teams for three solid years.  Sort of the poster child for "why would you ever play a true freshman there" when guys like Lee are willing and able.  By what little indications we had, Lee appeared to be a well-valued teammate who simply wasn't talented enough to get snaps on defense; the fact that he played so much on special teams and was, multiple times, named the scout teamer of the week suggested that the coaches thought quite highly of him.

S Kameron Mack *** (I.C. Norcom - VA)

Short version: Left to "focus on academics and personal life" and never returned

Those quote marks above come from Mike London, not Mack.  Mack played on special teams as a freshman, but shortly before fall practice in 2012, London told him to take a year off.  Mack was, at the time, still enrolled at UVA; he isn't anymore.

RB Clifton Richardson **** (Menchville - VA)

Short version: Kind of drifted away

I'll admit: I had really, really high hopes for Richardson.  Richardson played for a really awful high school team and in such a situation where almost everyone good (in Virginia, anyway) transfers schools, Richardson stuck it out.  He also showed a huge soft side in an article that detailed how he took care of a nephew of his who'd suffered awful burns as a toddler.  Combine it all with excellent, almost effortless athleticism of the four-star variety, and it looked like Richardson would be a huge favorite going forward.

It just wasn't to be; Richardson had some nagging injuries from the get-go, and maybe, simply lost interest in football as well.  In late spring of 2013 he decided to transfer out of UVA and landed at Liberty.  He lasted just one season, though.  In a run-heavy attack he was a clear backup in 2013, running for 399 yards on 94 carries. Just less than a year after he transferred from UVA, Liberty quietly announced he was no longer on the roster, putting an end to his football career.

LB Caleb Taylor *** (Phoebus - VA)

Short version: Transferred to ODU, then dismissed

Taylor only wore the UVA uniform for a season, in which he redshirted.  After a year, he decided, with a newborn daughter at home, to transfer back closer to home.  Though he started for ODU at linebacker in 2012, his job slipped away in 2013, and shortly after the start of that season, he was suspended, then dismissed, for "repeated violations of team rules."  He hasn't played football since.

QB David Watford *** (Hampton - VA)

Short version: One fairly disastrous season as a starter

Watford was hailed by some fans as an important recruit, not for his position or for having offers from everywhere, but for his high school: Hampton, where UVA typically had zero success in the past.  

His career was probably nothing like he envisioned.  Watford battled for the starting job as a true freshman before the coaches realized Mike Rocco was doing a much better job and yanking them both in and out wasn't helping.  (It's very likely Watford was partly hamstrung by having played in a run-almost-exclusively offense in high school.)  He then took a rare second-year redshirt in 2012, and emerged from that year's enormous controversy as the starter in 2013.  London then made the opposite mistake, refusing to consider another quarterback even as Watford struggled mightily all year.  He finished with only 8 TDs against 15 INTs and led the Hoos to a 2-10 season.

That earned him the back seat in the 2014 competition, and after about half the season he re-emerged with some reps at wide receiver, probably a reward for maintaining a solid attitude through a roller-coaster ride.  Very soon after the season, he announced his transfer back home to Hampton University, where he'll finish his college career.  It's a near-certainty the coaches told him he wasn't going to get another shot at quarterback; he will at Hampton.

NEVER PANNED OUT (3)

DE Rob Burns *** (Stone Bridge - VA)

Short version: Moved to tight end

In retrospect, a huge lanky 6'7" guy at DE wasn't likely to work out that well unless he was an athletic freak.  Burns isn't.  He redshirted 2011 and was moved to tight end during fall camp 2012.  Since then he's been a blocker for three years.  He has three career catches: one in 2013 for no gain, and two in 2014 for 11 yards.

That said, he'll be the only tight end this year who's ever set foot on the field.  Brendan Marshall is a converted quarterback and Evan Butts is a redshirt freshman; everyone else is still in high school.  Burns has maybe the best chance of anyone on this whole list to move up a category in his fifth season.

DT Vincent Croce *** (Good Counsel - MD)

Short version: Moved to fullback

Between Croce and Marco Jones, this class was supposed to set us up at DT for a good long time.  Croce could never get into the lineup, though.  After two seasons, one a redshirt year and the other in which he sat most of the year and finally got into the last four games on special teams, he was moved to fullback, or H-back, however you want to call it.

It's hard to say which, because the move didn't help his playing time much.  Croce has still been mainly a special-teamer.  In 2014, he finally did get some spot duty as an H-back.  This was exclusively in a blocking role, though; Connor Wingo-Reeves moved ahead of him on the depth chart almost immediately, and Croce has yet to carry the ball or catch a pass.  He has one more season, in which his role in the offense may expand, but probably only slightly.

S Mason Thomas ** (Kempsville - VA)

Short version: Special teamer

Thomas's offer came at the very end of the recruiting cycle, and raised a few eyebrows since he was barely recruited by any D-I teams and was very lightly rated.  If he's ever played a down on defense, I've missed it.  Like Darius Lee, he's been on the field a decent amount, all of it (or almost all of it) on special teams, and serves on scout team duty.  His role isn't likely to change this year.

USEFUL (2)

LB D.J. Hill *** (Newton - GA)

Short version: Solid backup linebacker

Hill would be a good poster child for why you should redshirt your freshmen.  He was never quite good enough to start during any of the four years of his career, except as an injury replacement - though when he did start, he acquitted himself quite well.  It's not entirely his fault, as linebacker has been one of the strongest position groups on the team during his whole tenure.

Hill was a little bit limited physically compared to the starters, but you always at least felt like the defense was in good hands when he was on the field.  This impression took off when he got a couple starts late in his sophomore year after La'Roy Reynolds got hurt.  The linebacking corps is wildly inexperienced this year with the departure of literally every starter; having Hill around to help bridge the depth chart gap would've been great if he hadn't been tossed out mainly on special teams as a freshman.

WR Dominique Terrell **** (Osbourn - VA)

Short version: Has only ever teased with his production

Being one of the most highly-rated members of the class of 2011 has helped make Terrell one of the most maddening.  He had a few moments as a true freshman, but a sophomore season with 38 catches and 475 yards made it seem as if he could really take strides as an upperclassman.

It wasn't to be.  Watford's crummy year in 2013 didn't help, but Terrell regressed down to 14 catches for 107 yards.  Through it all, he's been sent out to return punts and making UVA fans set records for use of swear words with his inexplicable decision-making.  Terrell has shown he can be a quality receiver when he focuses on the game, but he habitually makes awful choices regarding which punts to field and which ones to let slide - often attempting to pick up bouncing balls, or making mad dashes to try and catch punts headed to a spot nowhere near him.

Last season, rather than try and force him to play through nagging injuries, the coaches decided to shut him down and give him one last fresh start in 2015.  One of their smarter moves; his absence wasn't really felt last year and he's still got enough talent that it's worth seeing what he can do at full health.  I wouldn't bet on stardom, but this is still a golden opportunity for him after spinning his wheels as a junior.

CORE OF THE TEAM (4)

OL Ross Burbank *** (Cox - VA)

Short version: Back and forth between center and guard

Burbank's career has kind of advanced in fits and starts.  The coaches made more than one attempt to make him the starting center; it didn't always take.  He got some snaps there as a redshirt freshman, and some starts there as a sophomore, but never could quite hold down the job.  Last season might have made the move permanent; he started 11 games there.

When not playing center, Burbank moved over to guard; even if he wasn't holding down one particular job, he's always been holding a job.  With Jay Whitmire questionable for the season with a back injury, it might be that Burbank turns out to be the top O-lineman of the 2011 class.

WR Darius Jennings **** (Gilman - MD)

Short version: A top target for three years

Jennings and Terrell both committed on Signing Day, turning a good class into a great one.  Getting the two of them was considered a tremendous coup.  Two four-star receivers - it never would've happened under Groh, and it was supposed to lay the foundation for a terrific offense.

The quarterback situation didn't help at all, but neither really lived up to their billing.  Jennings was a good, not great, player for four years.  As a freshman he was decent, but only a complementary player - and really only needed to be, since Kris Burd was busy piling up nearly a thousand yards.  Jennings more than doubled his output as a sophomore, finishing with 48 catches for 568 yards.

He never matched it, though.  In 2013, he averaged less than 9 yards a catch, right around the time he was expected, as a veteran, to start helping out his quarterback.  His senior year was a rebound year, and he finally became the big-play threat we'd been hoping for, averaging over 19 yards a catch.  Still, he only scored twice, and managed just 27 catches - just seven more than his freshman season.  Jennings was always a fixture on the field and someone the passing game depended very heavily on, but he only ever showed flashes of being a game-changer.

CB Brandon Phelps **** (Damascus - MD)

Short version: Versatile DB who bounced between CB and S

One of quite a few true freshmen who played in 2011, Phelps started his career at cornerback.  There was more opportunity at safety in 2012, though, so that's where he went in fall camp.  For two years he toiled as a safety, where he was pretty good, most of the time.  Which smacks of damnation with faint praise, because really, cornerback was always his better position.

Which made it a good thing he moved back there as a senior; again, he went where he was needed, this time after Demetrious Nicholson went down with an injury.  (It also created room for Quin Blanding to get on the field.)  Phelps had the athleticism for safety but never the instincts needed to be a star there; he was a much more natural cornerback, able to use his size greatly to his advantage.  Fans were often frustrated with him; unfairly, I usually felt, as he wasn't far off from being one of the better-known DBs in the league and his versatility played against him in that regard.  You wouldn't call him a lockdown player and he didn't rack up the stats, but he wasn't a weak link by any stretch of the imagination.

OT Jay Whitmire *** (T.C. Williams - VA)

Short version: Still hoping to come back from a back injury

The offensive line has its depth issues, and I'll shout it from the rooftops how badly I think London has screwed that situation up.... but this hasn't helped.  Whitmire jumped onto the depth chart as a redshirt freshman and looked on his way to becoming a stalwart on the line.  Especially the next year, in 2013, when he was the line's most versatile player and probably its most talented not named Morgan Moses.  Whitmire started at both guard and tackle that year, depending on need.

Last year - nada.  Back injury.  Though the coaches tried to make noises about the possibility he'd play, it was pretty much evident from fall camp that he wouldn't.  Whether he will this year is anyone's guess.  Shame, because in a sea of offensive line question marks, he should've been the one exclamation point.

STARS (4)

DT David Dean *** (Green Run - VA)

Short version: Disruptive three-tech tackle

I kind of made it sound like Croce and Jones were the big hope at DT for this class, but Dean was just as much a part of the optimistic outlook as any of them.  Dean redshirted, and saw very limited playing time in 2012, but it felt like more; he was usually making his presence felt on the few occasions he was in the game.  That team had Will Hill, Chris Brathwaite in his good season, and Brent Urban on his way up, so Dean's time was always going to be limited.

2013 saw him force his way into the starting lineup, though, and for him it's been all uphill since.  This past year he played well enough to be on the coaches' third team all-ACC and honorable mention to the media; it's likely he'll get noticed in the upcoming season as one of the league's top returning D-linemen.  He's certainly the team's best one.

S Anthony Harris *** (L.C. Bird - VA)

Short version: Led nation in interceptions as a junior

Which pretty much made him a lock for any team with "all-" in front of it.  Harris's career trajectory was odd.  As a true freshman he was a special teamer and that was it.  The next year he was starting all 12 games at safety and ending up third on the team in tackles.  He started 35 games in all over three years.

It's really hard to duplicate the feat of picking off eight passes, so just going by his honors, Harris would appear to have peaked as a junior.  Don't be fooled; as a senior, Harris pulled off the very difficult feat of leading the team in tackles as a safety on a good defense.  That's normally a sign you have a crap defense; if your defense is good, it's a sign you have a damn good safety.  The idea of having to replace him next year is scary.

CB Demetrious Nicholson **** (Bayside - VA)

Short version: Has never played in a game he didn't start

Quite a feat, really.  Nicholson started 25 games his first two seasons, which amounts to all of them.  When healthy, he's unquestionably a top cornerback; fast, fluid, and with a real know-how for the position.  Over those two seasons he racked up 23 PBUs and added four more in five games as a junior.

Unfortunately, we haven't seen him in action since early in 2013.  OK, he came back for one game in 2014, which only proved he wasn't ready to come back.  UVA was deep at cornerback, so his absence didn't hurt too badly - though given the outcome of the VT game and the manner in which we lost, it's fair to say Nicholson might've been able to turn that around.  This season he'll be a solid bridge to the future; his return gives the coaches the ability to move Maurice Canady to safety to fill the obvious gap there.

LB Daquan Romero *** (Phoebus - VA)

Short version: Early enrollee became part of one of the league's top linebacking corps

Romero joined David Watford in spring camp 2011.  He made it pay off in a big way; while he didn't start any games as a freshman, he played regularly, and not just on special teams.  By the next year he was starting ACC games, and never looked back.  Along with Henry Coley, Romero formed a linebacking tandem that would've made Al Groh proud.

Playing on the outside, Romero made it a particular specialty of his to sniff out screen passes and crush them.  Announcers often said something to the effect of UVA was really good at defending screens because they ran them so often in practice.  It was probably true to some extent, but it was also usually the same guy blowing them up.  Romero never earned any all-ACC recognition, which was a shame because he loaded up with a smorgasbord of stats; he had numerous TFLs, a couple sacks, a pick, and a blocked kick.  For sure one of the best of the class.

**************************************

The verdict on this class is very boom-and-bust.  More bust than boom.  If you can get half of every class to fill in the top two categories you're in good shape, but this one managed just 8 really good players out of 25, and two more who've contributed.  15 of them never really did, and almost half washed out before even getting to this point.  That's not at all good.  A dearth of players in the "Useful" section really hurt the fortunes of the team, and even some of the players I called "Core" didn't fully live up to their promise.  As a comparison, the 2010 class that I profiled last year had three "Useful" players, and that was the much smaller coaching transition class.  And it only had four (of 18) who left early - five, I suppose, counting McGee.

I chalk some of it up to London's inexperience.  He did a great job convincing players who had lots of options to come to UVA.  But he didn't do so hot identifying players with staying power, took more than a few flyers, and didn't see any of them pan out.  The players who turned out really well were all players who were supposed to turn out that way, with the possible exception of Harris and Romero - who weren't exactly sleepers.

All in all, the 2011 class was at best a moderate success.  I suppose the only conclusion is that the class that was supposed to set the foundation for UVA's future, did.

Monday, March 23, 2015

culture shock

This is the post I should've written before Sunday, so you'd know what was coming.  I only managed to nod suggestively in its direction.  Now it's just about making sense of what happened.

Because to make sense of what happened, you have to get Michigan State.  Darion Atkins doesn't, or else he wouldn't have talked sideways about his teammates not wanting it enough.  No, I don't actually blame Atkins one bit.  He's frustrated, he just walked off a college basketball court for the last time, and to the uninitiated, what just happened really did look an awful lot like one team wanting it a lot more than the other.  But I'd venture to say nobody in the UVA locker room really gets Michigan State, nor do 99% of UVA fans.  After this, you'll know the true story of UVA's 2015 tournament exit.

See, MSU is built on a certain culture that Tom Izzo has cultivated.  It's a culture of birthright, of entitlement.  It makes them arrogant.  There's a hint of punk in their game.  Not Joey Ramone punk.  Think Greivis Vasquez punk.  The Spartans are cocky to an extreme, and it works extremely well for them.  They've been brought up to believe two things: one, that it's their right to beat Michigan, and two, that it's their right to excel in March.

This doesn't make them complacent.  On the contrary, it makes them hungry.  I often say that getting college kids to believe they've been disrespected is the easiest thing in the world.  They view the very existence of an opponent as disrespect.  That you would think you have any claim to winning a game against their birthright is disrespect on the order of making a rival claim to the throne.

As a result, they're really sore losers.  Some say that's a good thing; Vince Lombardi was the sorest loser in history.  "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser," he said.  Several years ago, Michigan made the U-M/MSU game a rivalry again by reeling off three straight wins; when MSU got one back, Draymond Green boasted that "The world is back into place."  He wasn't kidding.  Green had been recruited to MSU under the premise that beating Michigan is something you do as naturally as breathing.**   Three straight losses threw off his world order.  Izzo and his players have developed a pattern of saying in post-loss press conferences, "I'm not here to make excuses," and then rattling off a dozen excuses to rationalize why the world didn't turn out the way they expect.

-- After losing to Duke in the 2013 NCAA tournament, Gary Harris complained about a free throw disparity; MSU had shot 24 free throws to Duke's 16 before the first stop-the-clock foul.

-- After losing to Michigan last year, Izzo bemoaned Keith Appling's sore wrist as a reason for his poor shooting night.  Appling's sore wrist had put together two straight 20-point games just a couple weeks before and would follow up the Michigan loss with a 3-for-6 performance from three against Iowa.

-- The same loss to Michigan, in the very same press conference, saw Izzo simultaneously complain that he couldn't get Appling enough rest, and that Appling was in foul trouble too early and had to sit.

MSU takes this attitude into the postseason.  This is why I called them a zombie team.  It played out exactly like that on Sunday.  Every time the momentum looked like it might shift, something happened, and it didn't.  Darion Atkins gets a huge block and starts a mini 5-0 run; MSU gets re-energized by a wide-open dunk and then immediately gets the benefit of a TV timeout to let their momentum simmer.  UVA gets within two just after the half, misses the shot that would put them in the lead, and Denzel Valentine hits a three on the other end, sparking another run.  UVA gets a brilliant double team and a potential turnover, only to have the refs give them a loose-ball timeout and follow it up with an all-ball foul on Darion Atkins, sending our one effective post guy back to the bench.  Zombies.  You shoot and shoot and shoot and they don't die.  All that stuff conspired to remind MSU that March is their birthright, and they kept on playing like it.

Dollars to donuts, the pregame speech in the MSU locker room had a theme like this: "Hey.  This is March.  This is what we play for, and this is our time.  Those guys over there - they're January warriors.  They're great in the regular season.  Now they think they're gonna stroll in here and take what's ours?  They don't know March.  They can't handle March.  We know March."  They don't view you as an obstacle; that would be giving you respect.  You're in the Michigan State Show.  You think you're ready to make your run and beat them, they simply make a play, slap the floor, strut a bit, and that's that.

Michigan finally beat them and made it a rivalry again by finally being sick of their shit.  In 2011, Michigan finally swept the Spartans for the first time long enough that everyone had to look it up; the second game - at Michigan - got a little woofy, and Michigan's Darius Morris told MSU's Kalin Lucas to "Get the fuck off my court."  This is not a paraphrase or a metaphor.  The only response Lucas could muster was to throw the ball at Morris.

That's one way to beat them, but it took years of abuse.  UVA had one loss to them, not ten years worth of losses.  The other way to beat them?  Develop a winning culture of your own.  Our two years of being near the top of the world is nice, but it's not enough.  Here are the teams that've knocked MSU out of the tournament in the last ten years:

Connecticut, Duke, Louisville, UCLA, Butler, North Carolina, Memphis, North Carolina, George Mason, North Carolina.

That list is all blue-blood teams, with three exceptions: the first of two Butler teams to reach the championship; Derrick Rose; and a George Mason team that didn't know any better and wound up in the Final Four.  In fact, seven of those ten teams went to the Final Four; four went to the national championship, and two won it all.  These are teams that laugh when you slap the floor, because they've earned the right to do so.  Any other reaction and you're doomed.

That's what UVA was up against.  Probably a Final Four team now.  Oklahoma, bless their heart, is screwed.  MSU will look at them like a less-talented version of UVA and walk all over them.  The only team left in this region with a chance is Louisville.

To be fair to our players, there's a lot of breaks that, had they bounced the right way, we'd be scouting Oklahoma right now.  Hitting two end-of-shot-clock three pointers while your opponent goes 1-for-13 is part been-there-before and part luck.  But I can look at that game and find ways to win without a single one of those missed threes going down.  And so damn much of it can be chalked up to a culture that we just don't have yet.

**He'd also been recruited to MSU with the promise of playing in a Final Four.  Izzo literally had every single one of his recruiting classes go to the Final Four at least once, a streak that was finally broken last year.  Guaranteed, though, the substance of the pitch is the same even if the exact words no longer are.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

lacrosse bracketology

The show must go on.  The weekend wasn't a total loss, and this week's lacrosse bracketology reflects that.



I don't actually think UVA is the third-best team in the country, but then, you should already know that's not what this shows.  On the other hand, though, the Hoos' only two losses are to the teams that both RPI and LaxPower's computer consider the nation's top two.  So there's that.

In reality, UVA is probably peaking right now in the bracketology realm; it's hard to see them beating both Duke and UNC, and easy to see them losing both.  With wins over Cornell and Hopkins, though, it's tough to find teams with two really good wins like that.  YES I KNOW Hopkins is 3-5, but they've got such a nice RPI for 3-5 that they're floating the boat of everyone that beats them.

Some other notes:

-- Syracuse is definitely unreal at this point, and if they drop off that top line all season it'll be a huge shocker.

-- Georgetown is a surprise.  Awful last year and not having been to the tournament since 2007, right now they'd be in even without the autobid.  This bracket hoses them a bit on account of geography; strictly speaking, they should probably be playing Cornell, but since travel is a big consideration, this is how it goes.

-- Yale is in a dogfight with Ohio State for the last spot; the Elis get it for not having any bad losses like OSU's stumble against Detroit.

-- This field gets tougher if Towson claims the CAA autobid, which they can take a big step towards doing by beating UMass next week.  Towson is the only CAA team that can avoid the play-in games.

-- Duke and Cornell are almost completely interchangeable right now.

The effects of last week's games to watch:

-- Bucknell 10, Brown 9: Brown's offense decided to go to sleep, predictably throwing them right off the bracket while giving Bucknell no help at all.  Brown also got no help from Harvard, which lost in OT to Dartmouth, probably eliminating the Crimson from any tourney consideration at all.

-- Cornell 10, Colgate 9: The RPI, and therefore bracketology, sees no difference between winning by 1 and winning by a billion, so this throws no monkey wrenches into anything as far as Cornell is concerned.  Almost, though.

-- North Carolina 15, Harvard 10: In one week Harvard went from reasonable contender to also-ran.

-- Georgetown 13, Loyola 12: Two one-goal wins vaulted Georgetown from the bubble into the field.  Loyola has one other chance to prove itself, but are otherwise probably only vying for the Patriot League's one bid.

-- Navy 7, Colgate 6: Navy is 4-1 in the PL, but still has three difficult games remaining.

-- Georgetown 10, Marquette 9: It'll be fascinating to see if Marquette can hang on to their bid; their schedule provides both opportunities and challenges, which is a nice way of saying it's rather brutal from here on out.

-- Princeton 11, Yale 10: Yale has really slipped in the Ivy race, with two losses in a row.

-- Boston U. 11, Bucknell 9: Part of the reason Bucknell got so little boost from beating Brown is this loss to a BU team that's otherwise fattened up its record against nice frosty cupcakes.

-- Notre Dame 9, Ohio State 0: The RPI doesn't take into account margin of victory, but the committee members are human beings with the ability to process complex information.  This creates a triangle of doom between OSU, Denver, and ND, or it would if this game weren't likely to serve as comic relief in the committee lockdown room as well as all the reason anyone needed to tiebreak the Buckeyes right out of the tourney.

-- Virginia 16, Johns Hopkins 15: Hop's tournament chances have almost disappeared in about three minutes - the game time it took for them to go from 2 goals and 2 men up, to huddling on one end of the field while UVA celebrated on the other.  The Ohio State game in two weeks is, for them, a must-must-must-win.

-- Maryland 10, North Carolina 8: A signature win plus a Big Ten that's good enough to boost the Terps but not good enough to threaten them should ensure a tourney home game for Maryland.

-- Syracuse 19, Duke 7: It wasn't even that close.

Next week's games of interest:

-- Albany at Harvard: There is a very, very outside chance that Albany can set itself as a team not needing its autobid to get in.  Without it, they'd right now be sitting between Ohio State and Towson on the bubble.  They'll need to win this one to make that happen.

-- Colgate at Loyola: PL madness.

-- Boston U. at Navy: More PL madness.

-- Syracuse at Notre Dame: Heavyweights collide.  Just by virtue of being on each other's schedules, they'll both benefit.  This game should ensure that both are still occupying the 1 and 2 slots next week.

-- Massachusetts at Towson: Towson is a weird team, with both wins and losses they probably shouldn't have.

-- Army at Bucknell: More PL madness.

-- Georgetown at Denver: I'll be interested to see how Georgetown withstands a loss.  Should they win in the altitude, though, the Big East is effectively theirs until conference tournament time.

-- Marquette at Villanova: Marquette needs a bounceback win against a Villanova team that the UVA/Hop announcers called Hop's best win - before, that is, Villanova dropped a bad one to Fairfield.

-- Brown at Princeton: If Brown is the Ivy's real deal, this is their first chance to show it.

-- Duke at North Carolina: Whoever loses this game is the team UVA will badly need to beat in order to avoid the Penn game at the ACC tournament.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

game preview: Michigan State


Date/Time: Sunday, March 22; 12:10

TV: CBS

Record against the Spartans: 0-4

Last meeting: MSU 61, UVA 59; 3/28/14, New York, NY; NCAA Sweet Sixteen

Last game: UVA 79, Belmont 67 (3/20); MSU 70, UGA 63 (3/20)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 58.5 (#349)
MSU: 64.0 (#216)

Offense:
UVA: 112.1 (#24)
MSU: 113.7 (#16)

Defense:
UVA: 86.1 (#2)
MSU: 95.6 (#48)

Pythag:
UVA: .9544 (#5)
MSU: .8799 (#17)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (6.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.7 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (14.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.4 apg)
SF: Evan Nolte (3.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Darion Atkins (7.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 0.8 apg)

Michigan State:

PG: Travis Trice (14.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.2 apg)
SG: Lourawls Nairn (2.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 2.5 apg)
SF: Denzel Valentine (14.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.4 apg)
PF: Branden Dawson (12.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.8 apg)
C: Gavin Schilling (5.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.4 apg)

The selection committee insists they don't take storylines into account when they fill out the bracket, and maybe they don't - they certainly have plenty to worry about without looking for transfer players who might get the chance to play against their old team.  But the opening rounds for UVA have certainly not been lacking for interest.

UVA gets another shot at the team that bounced them from the Sweet Sixteen last year.  On paper, Michigan State isn't as good as they were last year.  In real life, MSU has a reputation as a tough out for a reason.  And just going by KenPom rankings, they're more a high 5-seed than a 7-seed.  They clamped down on Georgia in round 1; the Bulldogs only made one shot in three.  Your reward for a top-2 seed is to open the tourney against some scrappy little upstart that you can probably fry like an egg; the real tourney begins now.

-- UVA on offense

Despite the great work against UGA, in almost all of their losses, MSU topped the point-per-possession mark.  Their problem was occasionally letting bad teams score a bunch.  Minnesota, Nebraska, even Texas Southern early in the season; MSU usually doesn't have much trouble scoring, but their defense can occasionally buckle on them.  They generate good numbers, they just get a little inconsistent - a strange thing for a Tom Izzo team.

MSU is a little undersized.  Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling play as traditional centers, and rarely (if ever) appear on the court at the same time; both are 6'9", though, giving up a few inches to Mike Tobey.  That said, they're also heavy and solidly built, and can hold their ground just fine.  Other than the very lightly-used Colby Wollenman (who checks in at 6'7") nobody else on the MSU depth chart is over 6'6".  Branden Dawson is athletic and was a potential NBA draft entrant last year, but is only a 6'6" power forward.  So is his second-string, freshman Marvin Clark.  Finally, you've got 5'10", 170-pound shooting guard Lourawls Nairn, who'll draw 6'5" strong-as-an-ox Malcolm Brogdon, unless it's 6'0" Travis Trice instead.

So hopefully UVA will be able to put their size advantage to good use.  MSU is tough to score on when they're playing good fundamental ball; Izzo, though, has bemoaned his team's inconsistency all year, including after the Georgia game when he called his team "interesting."  MSU sometimes puts itself in foul trouble.  Costello and Schilling are strong, but not all that quick, and are prone to fouling players driving to the hoop.  They'll go for the block, and they get it pretty often, but they also sometimes miss and get a hack instead.  The guy to watch out for is Dawson; he's got some leaps and an ability to get those blocks without fouling.  He's a good answer to Justin Anderson in that regard.

Despite the inconsistency, you have to expect a grind.  MSU is also capable of excellent defensive performances; Indiana is one team that found that out, as did Georgia.  There are matchups where UVA will have the upper hand; failure to take advantage would be killer.

-- UVA on defense

The size advantage UVA has is different than what they had against Belmont, for one big reason: UVA was forced to go smallish against Belmont, because the whole team played outside the arc.  Mike Tobey only played five minutes.  MSU's bigs are never shooting threes (Marvin Clark being a possible exception, if you want to call him a big) and so Tobey and the rest of UVA's bigs can do what they're comfortable doing.

Clark will hoist them some, but there's really only three Spartans to care about from long range: Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, and Bryn Forbes.  All of them will fire away and all of them can hit with regularity.  Limiting the three-bombing to the players that can actually hit them has helped make MSU a really efficient offensive team.

They're also really good inside the arc.  Costello and Schilling kind of look like galoots, but they're strong players and know how to establish a presence.  They do a lot of cleanup work, scoring on putbacks quite a bit.  Schilling usually starts, but it's Costello, often going against opponent's second strings, who does the best work in most facets of the game.

Dawson uses his athleticism very well in getting to the rim, and off the bench, Bryn Forbes is a very versatile scorer.  The most dangerous guy on the court, though, is Valentine.  Valentine has always played with a little bit of an attitude, sometimes not a productive one.  Now a junior, though, he's reined it in a bit and has a great deal more consistency in his game as a result.  Valentine can score from anywhere.  He prefers jump shots and doesn't go to the rim as much, but he's very comfortable shooting from wherever he is on the court.

The one big weakness of the Spartans: Foul shooting.  Valentine is outstanding from the stripe, and Forbes is dependable.  Trice, though, misses more than a guard should.  Lourawls Nairn is a lousy shooter, especially for a guard; Costello is OK for a big, but Dawson is horrendous and Schilling is worse.  This would be a great game to have really whistle-happy refs who call it as tight as possible; if it's a parade to the line, UVA's chances improve tremendously.

-- Outlook

UVA has the advantage here.  The Hoos play better defense and don't have an ugly, glaring weakness the way MSU does with the free throws.  That said, games like this have a way of defying the on-paper analysis. Both teams are comfortable in close games, and this one probably will be.  If there's one intangible on the side of UVA, it's this: Like Memphis last year, MSU won't have had much time to focus on scouting the pack-line defense, needing to worry about their first-round opponent a great deal more.  But I'll frankly be damn good and surprised if this game is a blowout ilke that Memphis one.

Since I did such a damn good job predicting the Belmont score, let's hope this one's just as accurate.

Final score: UVA 61, MSU 59

Thursday, March 19, 2015

game preview: Belmont


Date/Time: Friday, March 20; 3:10

TV: truTV

Record against the Bruins: 1-0

Last meeting: UVA 94, Belmont 74; 12/28/99, Charlottesville

Last game: UNC 71, UVA 67 (3/13); Belmont 88, Murray St. 87 (3/7)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 58.2 (#349)
Belmont: 67.0 (#68)

Offense:
UVA: 112.2 (#25)
Belmont: 107.9 (#63)

Defense:
UVA: 85.5 (#1)
Belmont: 106.3 (#251)

Pythag:
UVA: .9580 (#4)
Belmont: .5407 (#146)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (6.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.8 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (13.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.5 apg)
SF: Evan Nolte (3.2 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.6 apg)
PF: Darion Atkins (7.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (11.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.8 apg)

Belmont:

PG: Reece Chamberlain (8.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 6.1 apg)
SG: Craig Bradshaw (18.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.2 apg)
SG: Taylor Barnette (10.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.3 apg)
PF: Amanze Egekeze (5.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Evan Bradds (14.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.3 apg)

Win or go home, you know the drill.  You no doubt also know a bit of the (very recent) history here: that it was former Hoo Taylor Barnette hitting the game-winning shot for Belmont that punched their dance ticket.  (This tourney is loaded with former Hoos.  Will Regan is still suiting up for Buffalo and Paul Jesperson is in with Northern Iowa.)

Memories of last year's first-round game are still fresh; UVA found itself down by as many as nine to 16-seed Coastal Carolina.  Belmont - a small school sitting in Vanderbilt's shadow in Nashville - is the kind of team that could make the Hoos nervous again ... but also the kind that could get completely rolled.

-- UVA on offense

Belmont's not the worst defensive team in the tournament - that honor belongs to Eastern Washington - but it's close.  Their efficiency of 106.3 places them outside the top 250 in the country.  Size has something to do with it, but the OVC isn't exactly loaded with seven-footers, either.  Belmont was even crummy within their own conference.

Belmont let most opponents shoot over 50% from inside the arc, especially if that opponent had a functioning big man.  UVA has three.  This is where the Hoos will have just an incredible, unfair advantage.  Belmont simply doesn't have big men.  Tyler Hadden is 6'10", 240 and Mack Mercer is 6'9", 220, and both play about six minutes a game.  Taking most of the big-man minutes are starters Amanze Egekeze and Evan Bradds; Bradds is 6'7", 205, and Egekeze is only an inch taller and ten pounds heavier.

Tobey, Gill, and Atkins are going to have a field day with this.  Belmont has the choice of using players who are barely OVC-caliber, or using guys who are small enough to get posted up by Evan Nolte.  The Hoos are going to want to feed the post all day long; if they find a hot hand, that guy might score 20.  This is to say nothing of the rebounding advantage UVA will have.

It's not only the bigs; our old friend Barnette, more power to him, but he's going to have to guard one of Brogdon, Nolte, or Anderson, and there's a reason he couldn't get on the court much while competing with them for playing time.  Not to single him out; it's more an illustration of the talent difference here.

Frankly, there's no reason UVA shouldn't be able to score a whole bunch.  The patient approach they have is going to break down this defense.  I'd expect a bunch of double-teams to make up for Belmont's lack of size, but with so many mismatches on the floor, it shouldn't matter.

-- UVA on defense

Here's what makes me nervous.  The huge size advantage UVA has is nullified in a way.  Belmont won't be able to drive much and they'll never be able to post up.  They might find some clever passing angles for an open bucket or two, but mainly, they'll be forced to shoot a lot of threes.  Which is exactly what they want to do.

That's how you beat the Hoos, of course.  Belmont attempted more threes than all but four teams in the country, and the thing about shooting is, an open three is an open three regardless of talent level or conference or whatever.  In other words, just because they're a 15 seed doesn't mean a 40% shooter is gonna be any worse against a 2 seed.

Craig Bradshaw leads the way, shooting 42%.  Barnette, of course, has a very green light, and Nick Smith, despite playing only 15 minutes a game, has the third-most attempts on the team.  But truthfully, just about anyone on the court is fair game to fire away.  Mack Mercer, who barely plays anyway, is the only player to be really complacent about.

I think we'll see the post double employed very little - partly because the ball just won't be in the post much, but partly because it doesn't make sense to leave three-point shooters temporarily open so you can double a guy that Anthony Gill could eat for lunch anyway.

With a ton of shooters all bombing away, it's too much to think they'll all go cold all at once.  Some of these are going to drop.  You just figure that the defenders need to be able to close out; fortunately, with no real post threat, there isn't much need to collapse too far in the first place.  Belmont is going to shoot like 20 threes regardless of what the defense does; if most of them are contested, UVA should be able to keep the Bruins at arms' length.

-- Outlook

Belmont has half the traditional formula for a big upset.  They shoot threes - lots of them, and well.  So often, though, the scrappy underdog also has a legit big man who seems like he's everywhere.  No doubt the Bruin bigs are going to scrap, but they're likely doomed to being dominated in all aspects of the game.  I think Belmont keeps it closer than we'd like, shooting well enough to not let the game get out of hand.  But they're not going to play enough defense, either.

Final score: UVA 79, Belmont 66

Monday, March 16, 2015

worst

Man, screw this weekend right in the pooper.

About the best you can say for it was that almost nobody got hurt.  Almost.  And that's of course limited to players who are still here.  Mike Scott broke his toe and Chris Taylor - who was well on his way to becoming the Opening Day starting shortstop for Seattle - broke his wrist.  That confirms it.  It wasn't just one of those weekends where stuff sometimes happens.  It was further proof that We Can't Have Nice Things because the fates are capricious dicks.

Arguably, basketball, lacrosse, and baseball are all now without their best players.  Oh, sure, Justin Anderson's technically on the court, but he scored zero points in two ACC tournament games, and I refuse to believe the taped-up splint on his finger had nothing to do with that.  (Sweet block against UNC, though.)  Joe McCarthy is still out for the baseball team and will be for a few more weeks.  James Pannell....ugh.

Both lacrosse and basketball, in their losses, let the game slip away early.  I'm not that impressed with either comeback, though the basketball one was better.  It came closer and forced UNC to shape up their game, which to their credit, they did.  Because, look, it'd be easy to say how much closer that game would've been, maybe even a UVA win, if Justin Jackson hadn't gone from reliable bricklayer to reliable point machine from long range.  You take your chances with a guy who's shooting like 26% from three.  But then, UNC looked like crap on offense for three-quarters of the game, and being behind by a lot was a function of looking even crappier.  At the end, it was certainly scary for the Heels, but then the old cliche about one team making plays reared its head.

I'm not ready to vindicate the lacrosse team based on their own mini-comeback, because that was only natural when one team decides it's desperate and the other is getting comfy.  There's a lot to complain about, but I think I'll focus on stick skills, which this team seems to lack.  Ground balls were a commonly-heard problem, but that's just an extension of the problem.  I haven't seen enough yet to know whether this is a chronic problem, but it sure as hell was an issue Saturday.  The Hoos could've jumped out to a lead if they'd connected cleanly on a few early passes - difficult plays, but we're used to seeing them work.  In one incident that stands out, Greg Coholan whiffed on a perfectly simple, uncontested pass in his direction, which sailed to the other end of the field and resulted in a Notre Dame goal 30 seconds later.

We're not even going to talk about baseball.  It brought Hokies out of the woodwork who couldn't name two players on their own team.

Finally, we come to the tournament draw.  Mark Titus, avowed fan of the whole concept of UVA basketball, thinks UVA got hosed.  I'm a UVA fan, which means, like all UVA fans, I think UVA exists in a constant state of hosed-ness that withdraws every so often, like a low tide that occasionally exposes neat seashells to collect.  (It's why we we have such a high opinion of Tony Bennett: he can command the tides.)  So naturally I agree with Titus.

It's pretty easy to come up with a few reasons why.  UVA had a better season than Duke.  UVA is the top two-seed, and therefore should play the weakest 1 seed, but instead gets the second-best 1 seed in Villanova.  And the first-weekend draw is unlucky: Belmont and Michigan State are both excellent three-point shooting teams, exactly the formula to knock off this defense.  Georgia doesn't count; Tom Izzo's teams don't lose in the first round.  Tom Izzo's teams are like zombies.  You can shoot them a thousand times and they won't die.  I haven't seen a single UVA fan on any board who doesn't automatically assume MSU won't beat Georgia.

On the other hand, the committee did do UVA a small favor by putting them in Charlotte.  The other decently close possibility was Pittsburgh, where there are no 2 seeds.  The Hoos should get a clear home-court advantage, unless they play Georgia.  And if we're allowed to look past the first weekend, Villanova and Oklahoma are the two least intimidating 1 and 3 seeds.  I'd happily switch spots with Villanova, sure, just for the sake of having the title of 1 seed, but I'll tell you right now I wouldn't switch with Wisconsin.  Hope the Badgers like playing Arizona out in LA.

Besides.  Belmont's frontcourt, if you can call it that considering none of them are bigger than Evan Nolte, is laughably ripe for abuse and MSU is much less on paper than they were last year.  This could just as conceivably go really well, as really badly.  And we get to play Friday, always my preferred day.

Anyway, the weekend wasn't a total loss: I did put together something fun.  One of my better efforts, but I can't take much credit because the subject matter was absolutely perfect.  And next weekend is one of the year's very best.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

lacrosse bracketology

What better day than Selection Sunday to unveil the season's first edition of lax bracketology?  The season is close to half over, so it's a good time.

In review of last year's final edition, it went pretty well.  I've done better, but last year I got four of eight seeds exactly right and seven of eight seeded teams.  I'm more annoyed about missing on Harvard, which made the tournament as an at-large over my choice of Hofstra.  I had adjusted my system and based on that miss, I re-adjusted it back some for this year.  Perfection - nailing all 18 slots exactly - continues to be the elusive goal.

A couple reminders on method: first, autobids are given to the team that currently holds them, and tiebreakers are based on the Laxpower computer rankings.  What this means for now is that most conferences haven't started their conference schedules in earnest, and Laxpower is basically handing out the autobids in most cases.  That's OK - that computer is a pretty good 75% approximation of how things might shake out anyway.  I do try to predict the NCAA's arcane thoughts on travel, but less so early on since it's a little more important to show who stands where.

And as always, this is if the season ended today, not a prediction of the final bracket.

So, here's the official first look:

Initial thoughts:

-- Brown is starting out low here....but that could easily change later when they've had a crack at the rest of their conference.  Knocking off Harvard is a solid start.  Do not be surprised to see Brown turn into the class of the Ivy this year.

-- Along the same lines, I don't think Cornell will end up that high.  But for UVA's sake, let's hope they do.  Right now, that win over what happens to be the RPI's number 2 team is what's keeping UVA from going on the road, or for that matter, possibly in the tournament at all.

-- The Patriot League is fascinating.  Quint Kessenich wrote earlier this week that he could see anyone but Lafayette winning it.  I think I'd also drop Lehigh at this point, but yeah.  Best part is: it's probably a one-bid league.  It's full of teams that are pretty decent, but no better.  Holy Cross is a special enigma all their own.  Already nobody's undefeated in conference play, so right now, the only way I see two bids coming out of that league is if someone - it'd have to be one of the five one-loss teams, which rules out the team many think is the conference's best: Army - goes on a total rampage and then gets upended in the championship game.  More likely is that they'll just chew each other up, dogfight for one of the top four places so they can go to the conference tourney, and then whoever wins it, wins it.

-- A couple years ago, UMass caused a huge controversy by being undefeated and then being seeded sixth.  Many people were infuriated that they'd be seeded so low, which gave them a quality opponent (Colgate) who they promptly lost to.  They "did all they could" was the argument.  This missed the point, of course; UMass had played three teams out of fifteen with a winning record, none of whom actually made the tournament.  Personally I felt that the selection committee was right to want to see them be tested by a quality team rather than reward cushy-soft schedules; giving them the 1 or 2 seed would've suggested that the path to tourney success is to drop out of the ACC and join the SoCon.

The point in all this is that at first blush, Marquette looks like they might be shaping up to be this year's UMass.  They're 7-0 and taking the world by the proverbial storm.  They'll definitely be tested, though.  Denver, Notre Dame, and Duke all loom large at the end of the year.  If they're still undefeated by then, nobody's going to scoff at their schedule.

As always, here are next week's games to keep an eye on:

-- Bucknell at Brown: Normally you figure that an underdog - in this case, Bucknell, sitting on the wrong side of the bubble - can really help itself if it wins a game like this.  Semi-normally, you sometimes find that all it does is drag down the favorite and help the underdog not at all.  In this case, we're early enough in the season that I could easily see Bucknell dragging down the Bears temporarily, and then floating back up when  and if Brown does a number on the Ivy League.  More likely, Brown's powerful offense shoves Bucknell off of next week's bubble.

-- Colgate at Cornell: Colgate has mostly folded whenever faced with a good team, and beaten only horrible ones - but they did knock off Bucknell.  There's only the most outside chance of an upset here, but since I'm still casting a skeptical eye at Cornell, we'll leave this game here.

-- Harvard at North Carolina: Not much doubt in my mind that Harvard would appear in the bracket had they beaten Brown this week.  Here's a chance for redemption.

-- Georgetown at Loyola: I was honestly surprised to see Georgetown anywhere near the discussion, but there they are on the low end of the bubble.  It's not premature to call this an elimination game for both these teams.

-- Navy at Colgate: Pretty much every Patriot League game is worth a look.

-- Marquette at Georgetown: Marquette will lose darling status immediately if they lose this game.

-- Yale at Princeton: Frankly, I'm not sure the Ivy League can support four tournament teams.  We'll know more after this one for sure.

-- Bucknell at Boston U.: Patriot League again.

-- Ohio State at Notre Dame: Is OSU for real?  They've spent most of the season squeaking out wins against shitty teams (and losing to Detroit HA HA), then they go and beat Denver.

-- Virginia at Johns Hopkins: Right now the Hop is magically inflating the resumes of all the teams that beat them.  As the announcers during the UVA-ND game said, they picked a good year to join a conference.  They're running out of chances to steal an at-large; the Big Ten schedule isn't going to earn them one unless they can crack Maryland's stone-wall defense.  And frankly they run the risk of losing to an Ohio State or even a Michigan.  Point: they badly need this one, or else they'll just inflate the resume of one more team.

-- Maryland vs. North Carolina: The Twerps could use a signature win; they sort of balanced out beating Princeton by losing to Yale.  If they lose to UNC, they're probably still OK as far as getting into the tournament, but their schedule otherwise lacks any elite teams (since Hopkins doesn't count this year.)  That means a decent possibility they go on the road to start the tourney, and become someone's nightmare matchup - and as you can see, Charlottesville is a very possible destination.

-- Duke at Syracuse: Mainly just jockeying for seeding here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

game preview: North Carolina


Date/Time: Friday, March 13; 7:00

TV: ESPN

Record against the Heels: 52-128

Last meeting: UVA 75, UNC 64; 2/2/15, Chapel Hill

Last game: UVA 58, FSU 44 (3/12); UNC 70, UL 60 (3/12)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 57.9 (#349)
UNC: 69.7 (#15)

Offense:
UVA: 112.5 (#23)
UNC: 114.4 (#13)

Defense:
UVA: 84.8 (#1)
UNC: 94.0 (#31)

Pythag:
UVA: .9627 (#3)
UNC: .9055 (#13)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (6.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.7 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (13.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.6 apg)
SF: Evan Nolte (2.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Darion Atkins (7.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.9 apg)

North Carolina:

PG: Marcus Paige (13.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.6 apg)
SG: J.P. Tokoto (8.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.2 apg)
SF: Justin Jackson  (10.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg)
PF: Brice Johnson (12.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 0.8 apg)
C: Joel James (2.7 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 0.1 apg)

Can I just start off by pissing all over the refereeing in the FSU game?  Not that anyone needs it pointed out, it had both coaches fuming and the usually restrained Sean McDonough (whose announcing I tend to enjoy) was more than a little critical.  But still.  I was gonna say it was the usual, vintage Jamie Luckie, but it was absolute shit even by Luckie's low standards.

The ironic thing was that the call that sent Leonard Hamilton over the edge was not only 100% right, but damn well should've been looked at for flagrant potential.

Anyway.  A well-played game by UVA in spurts, and frankly would've felt a lot better if not for a streak of rimmed-out shots early in the second half.  Maybe it's good they didn't fall - gives the team a reason to refocus their efforts in a few places where they were rough around the edges.  North Carolina is another athletic team like FSU - not quite as big, but obviously with a great deal more scoring talent.

As of the moment I type this, Notre Dame has already raced out to a comfy lead against Miami, and there's no real reason they should lose it.  That makes the ACC's final four possibly every bit as good as the one that'll happen in Indy.  It's not going to be an easy road to a repeat, but if the Hoos do pull it off, they'll establish themselves as clearly the class of the ACC, and start to induce whispers about a changing of the guard.

-- UVA on offense

The promised injection of athleticism from Justin Anderson's return never really came to fruition.  True to his word, Tony Bennett only played him in short stints.  It's a tough balancing act, because you don't want to tire him out from running him for long stretches, but Anderson isn't a reserved player and could really use a long stretch or two.  He didn't score, and actually seemed tentative.

Malcolm Brogdon also had an off game, and the only thing that really stood out on the stat sheet was the nine assists from London Perrantes.  UVA found shots difficult to come by and had to generate them from a lot of off-the-ball motion.  UNC's defense, while active, won't be quite as up-in-the-grill as Florida State was.  FSU likes to play like that, but that was way aggressive even by their standards.

Still, the approach will be similar.  UNC is UNC, which means as always they'll try to out-athlete you and usually will win if you let them make it into a one-on-one contest.  UVA will want to use that against them, the way a karate master might use his opponent's weight and power against him.  UVA pulled away from UNC in the second half of their regular-season meeting partly because UNC got a bit desperate, starting trying to put on more pressure, and opened up shooting and passing lanes.

I've loved what I've seen out of Mike Tobey the past couple games - against Louisville, on one occasion he ripped an offensive rebound away from no less than Montrezl Harrell and stuffed it back in the hoop, and against FSU he got to the basket with great timing and continued to insist on owning nearby rebounds.  He'll be the tallest guy on the court on Friday, and has an opportunity to continue being a force down low if he contends with the bulk that Joel James and Kennedy Meeks carry around.

Despite UNC's quality KenPom numbers, good teams tend to score on them.  Sometimes bad teams score on them.  More often than not, teams reach a point per possession.  UVA should be able to do the same.

-- UVA on defense

Carolina wants to do two things: run around like crazy, and get the ball inside.  Whether that means scoring in transition, slashing at the basket, or feeding the post, UNC prefers to two-point you to death, even more so than FSU, who themselves were pretty heavily weighted toward the two.  UNC is second in the country in percentage of their points coming from two-point buckets, and 349th in the same for three-pointers.

Naturally, that's great for UVA, which typically only gets in real trouble when teams are bombing from three.  On UNC, only Marcus Paige and Nate Britt (and the latter plays only 16 minutes a game) shoot high volumes from three, and they're both respectable but not deadly.  (Justin Jackson will probably try a few as well, but he shoots .270 from there, so, fine, shoot all you like.)

Paige gets a lot of press, but there's a little bit of the volume scorer in him; he boosts his O-rating by being a great foul shooter and a solid distributor.  He's not an exceptional shooter.  The guy to actually be most worried about, I think, is Kennedy Meeks, a big ball of beef in the middle.  Meeks returned from an illness to play against Louisville, and though like Anderson he didn't start, he did give the Heels 19 solid minutes.  Paige gets all the attention, but Meeks does a ton of dirty work that's been absolutely critical to UNC's success.

UVA's rebounding chops - 5th-best defensive rebounders in the country - will be put to the test by UNC, which thanks mainly to Meeks and Brice Johnson, rebounds over 40% of their misses.  They're 6th in the nation.  Meeks and Johnson get stickbacks like you wouldn't believe.  The fact that UNC's offense tends to feature Paige and J.P. Tokoto driving at the rim, missing, and having Meeks and Johnson try to clean up, that tends to help push Carolina's tempo as high as it is; it's a juicy transition attempt if they can't finish.

The fact that UNC is built a lot like FSU is another good sign for UVA.  Never discount the talent they bring to the table, but they've shown this year they're by no means unstoppable, and UVA has the formula to do it, again by nullifying strength with strength.

-- Outlook

I've been pointing out the similarities between FSU and UNC, and there are many.  UNC is in many ways a better version of the Seminoles.  But they have plenty of differences, too, especially this: whereas FSU wants to roil the waters and play rough a bit, UNC wants to run and play an artistic version of the game.  FSU is a muddy Jeep Wrangler; UNC is a slick Jaguar.  The Wrangler is still one of the best mudders around, but easily the most unrefined vehicle anywhere on the road.  The Jaguar is shiny, gorgeous to look at, smooth, and sometimes absurdly unreliable and crazy expensive to fix.

UVA's approach should work against either, though.  UVA always gets their stops.  The only exception has been Duke and their unreal barrage of threes, which UNC is uniquely ill-equipped to replicate.  If you let UVA score with any regularity, you're almost always screwed.

All bets are off, of course, if Jamie Luckie referees the game, and especially if he brings back his Dungeons and Dragons dice to randomly determine how many steps equals a travel.

Final score: UVA 79, UNC 71

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

game preview: Florida State


Date/Time: Thursday, March 12; 12:00

TV: ESPN

Record against the Noles: 22-22

Last meeting: UVA 51, FSU 41; 2/22

Last game: UL 59, UVA 57 (3/7); FSU 76, Clem. 73 (3/11)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 58.0 (#349)
FSU: 66.5 (#90)

Offense:
UVA: 112.9 (#22)
FSU: 102.8 (#154)

Defense:
UVA: 85.2 (#2)
FSU: 97.7 (#83)

Pythag:
UVA: .9622 (#3)
FSU: .6446 (#102)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (6.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.7 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (13.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.6 apg)
SF: Evan Nolte (2.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Darion Atkins (7.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 0.7 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.9 apg)

Florida State:

PG: Xavier Rathan-Mayes (14.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.4 apg)
SG: Devin Bookert (10.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg)
SG: Montay Brandon (11.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg)
PF: Phil Cofer (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.2 apg)
C: Kiel Turpin (5.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.1 apg)

Everything matters now, therefore game previews.  And if I told you about:

-- a 16-2 UVA team
-- that won the ACC regular season against Syracuse
-- by running away with the game in the second half
-- then lost its finale on the road on a big senior night for the opponent
-- and faced Florida State in the opening round of the ACC tourney

you still wouldn't know whether I was talking about 2014 or 2015.  Yup, it's shaping up a lot like it did last year.  UVA opens with nine-seed Florida State, who survived a near-choke against Clemson in their opener after leading most of the game.  The lone contest against FSU this year was a close one, in which FSU's terrific freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes made some tough shots, but also in which FSU scored four points in the final ten minutes.  The winner gets the Louisville-UNC winner - so a UVA win here would set up some interesting storylines.

-- UVA on offense

FSU has a pretty deep frontcourt, but it might be short a man after a strange play in the Clemson game: forward Phil Cofer, running the baseline to try and inbound the ball, slipped, lost the handle, and watched from his butt as a Clemson player picked it up and scored an easy layup.  Cofer hobbled off the court, having twisted his knee.  FSU has three seven-footers, and one is always on the court, but they're not known to ever play two of them at once, and Cofer is one of only two true power forwards on the roster.  The other, Jarquez Smith, is not the rebounder Cofer is, but is a better shot blocker.

On the good guys' sideline, it's the opposite story as Justin Anderson might finally be ready to return from a broken finger and surprise appendectomy.  I'm not sure he'd immediately jump right back into the starting lineup, but whether he does or whether he comes off the bench, the impact would be obvious.

FSU's calling card this year (as in many years) is size and length.  The smallest regular player (outside of the very lightly used Dayshawn Watkins) is 6'3" Devin Bookert.  They're athletic, tough shot-blockers, and frankly, Leonard Hamilton's teams usually make things difficult on opponents trying to score.  They don't gamble much because they don't need to.  The one puzzling thing is that despite their size and always having a seven-footer on the floor, they don't rebound well on defense.  Anthony Gill pulled down four offensive boards during the last game.

You'll recall, of course, that not only did the Hoos lack the presence of Justin Anderson, they also lost London Perrantes during this game.  For a short time there, Malcolm Brogdon was out, too.  Having all three for the duration of the game should help the offense, which produced one of its worst games of the season trying to solve the FSU defense.  The more ominous sign for FSU might be this, though: in three of four ACC rematches, the UVA offense improved over the previous showing - sometimes explosively, as Wake and VT would attest to.  The only exception was NC State, which was the first game UVA played without Anderson.  Expect Tony Bennett's scouting to pay off again.

-- UVA on defense

For all that athleticism and length, FSU has a few major weaknesses on offense.  They can't shoot and they turn the ball over a ton.  Nobody in particular is a huge turnover machine, they just all lose it with some consistency.  And despite Rathan-Mayes's 30-point outburst against Clemson, he's an under-.300 three-point shooter.

FSU doesn't shoot a lot of threes anyway, though, which is smart given the makeup of their team.  They'd rather go inside, and they shoot over 50% from two.  Montay Brandon is a very effective scorer inside the arc, and Rathan-Mayes's efficiency skyrockets when he goes inside as well.

Their big strength is their inside play - and not coincidentally, getting to the free-throw line (8th in the country in ratio of FT to FG) - so the fact that UVA is one of the elite teams in the country at interior defense (opponents shoot 39% inside the arc) is naturally encouraging.  (And goes a long way toward explaining why the last game was such a rugged affair.)

Much will be made, no doubt, of Rathan-Mayes's big game, and the analysts will probably say that stopping him is the key to winning.  UVA, though, will be happy to bet he can't shoot 5-for-9 from three again.  Keeping him out of the lane is more important, and of course, exactly what UVA's defense is geared to do.  Actually, for my money, it's the defensive rebounding that matters most.  FSU can hurt you with second-chance points.  The Hoos did a fantastic job on the defensive glass last time out, so, again, UVA is geared to stop the Noles.

-- Outlook

Last game was a rock fight and a half.  It wasn't pretty, but it was fun to watch regardless.  In an elimination game, there's no reason to expect any different.  I don't think it'll be an easy time scoring the ball for anyone.  UVA will get a much-needed shot of athleticism if Justin Anderson returns, which should help open up the offensive end.

It'll most likely be a pitchers' duel, though; bet on the team that sends Randy Johnson to the hill every damn night.

Final score: UVA 59, FSU 47

Thursday, March 5, 2015

senior moments

I kind of wish the lacrosse game had been after the basketball game.  (Yes, I mean Syracuse - and yeah, I kinda like this deal where we get both of those games on the same weekend.)  I might've stuck around for the second half.  I guess the lax crew looked a lot better after halftime.  I wouldn't know, having had my fill after two quarters of only winning faceoffs if the ball first found its way to one corner of the field.

I don't need to learn that lesson for basketball, because Tony always figures it out.  I suppose one day maybe he won't, but, I mean, if you've been paying attention you know how he preaches, and even the worst fifteen minutes of offense in anyone's recollection isn't insurmountable if the defense is still defensing.

For all the criticism announcers take, sometimes they hit the target, and the crew on Monday night did just that when they said all it took to fix the putrid offense was an attitude adjustment.  Might be that Evan Nolte's three-pointer kicked off the run, but what made it a run was the decision by the ballhandlers to attack the zone.  It's amazing how things just fell into place after that.

And through it all, the defense.  The offense swung as violently between extremes as any team's offense ever did this season, and the defense was the defense, which makes it sort of fitting the Hoos wrapped up the regular-season title that way, because it was Tony's preaching brought to life in lurid fashion.

Myron Medcalf can keep on being snide.  (And he does, believe me.)  Anyone who isn't entertained by this team has no business watching college basketball.  Three games in a week, all of them vastly different from one another yet all of them with unmistakeable Tony Bennett fingerprints.  Tony just engineered two of the three double-ups in ACC history, in one season.  If the Hoos win in Louisville, Tony will be, as far as anyone can tell, the only ACC coach, probably the only coach in any conference, to improve his win total six years in a row.  These are mind-boggling feats of strength.  Are you not entertained?

**************************************

-- I found myself caught in the trap that most writers fall into, to wit: pre-forming a narrative and hoping the facts turn out to fit it.  In this case I was planning on writing about how last week was revenge on a pair of teams that woke the dragon by daring to play the two closest games we've seen all season.  Wake certainly obliged.  VT basically did, too, but undermined the narrative by getting three of the stupid-luckiest rolls on three-pointers I've ever seen.  Tech did make the first half close, but try landing a shot like they did, just so, on the back of the iron.  Take away blind luck and the VT game is a plain-Jane blowout.

-- I'm almost always a huge fuddy-duddy about showboating and punking your opponents - I thought, for example, that Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt was 99% in the right in berating his player for clapping in someone's face.  (The only quibble is that I do think there's wisdom in the maxim "praise in public, criticize in private.")  But I also know the difference between having fun and being a dick, which is why I don't mind one bit that Darion Atkins got T'ed up.  Except that maybe that would've been a solid time to swallow the whistle and not call an I'm-in-charge-here foul.

-- Jim Boeheim's not a bad guy, as coaches go.  But Rob Vozenilek and Maleek Frazier checked in at the scorers' table to finish out the VT game.  One game later, the TV cameras panned to Syracuse's Carter Sanderson sitting at the end of the bench in the final seconds of a blowout while the announcers set up the replay of his portion of the senior day festivities.  That's the Tony Bennett Difference.

-- An appendectomy???  What's next for Justin Anderson, Lyme disease?  Sheesh.

-- Interesting bit of news on the football side, where UVA will bolster the tight end depth chart with former QB Brendan Marshall.  Makes sense, since he was being rapidly buried in the QB hierarchy and tight end is completely lacking in experience and depth.  It's still lacking in experience, but the more pieces you throw at the wall, the more likely one will stick.